The Enchantments of Japan

 

For several years now Cruise Express has been traveling throughout Japan, escorting hundreds of clients who have returned with cameras full of stunning imagery and minds full of unforgettable memories.

While Japan has increasingly become a bucket-list travel destination, our travel specialists are asked what the key attractions are for this somewhat mystical island nation. In no particular order, outlined below are a few of the sights and sounds our clients time and time again treasure:

Shrines & Temples

Two of the most common historical buildings you will find in Japan are temples and shrines, with over 2,000 in Kyoto alone, there are literally millions of different sizes and significance scattered throughout. They are not the same but what is the difference between the two?

Basically, temples are Buddhist, while shrines are Shinto. Temples have monks and often many Buddhist statues and sometimes have a graveyard attached on the site. Buddhism was originally brought from India to China during the Heian era, then spread throughout Japan.

Shrines are easy to identify as they generally have a large, often vermilion red sacred gate, standing in front of them.  Unlike Buddhism, Shintoism is indigenous to Japan, and is as old as Japan itself. It is believed that everything has a spirit, even stones, trees and mountains. It is believed there are millions of gods throughout Japan. Spirits of nature and ancestors are highly revered above all else.

A large number of wedding ceremonies are held in Shinto style. Death, however, is considered a source of impurity and is left to Buddhism to deal with. Consequently, there are virtually no Shinto cemeteries, and most funerals are held in Buddhist style.

Mount Fuji

No trip to Japan is complete without a visit to the country’s most symbolic geographical landmark, revered since ancient times, culturally, spiritually and physically. At 3,776 metres high, Mt Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan and a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site since 2013.

It’s not always easy to see this dormant volcano (no eruptions since 1707) though, as the weather and seasons can sometimes keep the mountain shrouded in clouds for days or weeks. While it seems that on average, early morning is the best visibility from Tokyo on a clear day (approximately 100km away) typically from autumn to winter – in particular, December and January are usually the best months for visibility.

Undoubtedly, Mt Fuji is the most popular tourist site in Japan, for both foreigners and Japanese, particularly in springtime when cherry blossoms frame the snowy mountain in full bloom shades of pinks and whites.

Upwards of 300,000 people every year embark on what many call a gruelling eight-hour climb to the summit, but the achievement and stunning sunrises are well worth it. It is often regarded as a sacred pilgrimage to summit the mountain with thousands of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples along the way. Naturally, these climbs are usually done in the warmer months particularly between July and August, with lots of ‘huts’ to rest and refresh, so if a good hike is on your agenda then this may be the perfect destination for you!

Sumo Wrestling

Sumo is Japan’s national sport and the only country in the world where it is practiced professionally. Although many consider it a modern form of martial art, this unique style of wrestling (men only in competition and ceremonies) actually originated as a Shinto religious ritual over 1,500 years ago to ensure a bountiful harvest and to honour the spirits – known as kami.

It is considered a trial of strength in combat and the rules, although having changed throughout history, are relatively simple. The first wrestler who has any part of his body touching the ground (soles of feet excluded),  thrown to the ground or who steps out of the ring, is defeated – game over – many matches only last for a handful of seconds!

Most of us are curious as to why Sumo wrestlers are so ‘fat’ – can’t be healthy surely? In fact, the early wrestlers were more wiry and muscular than today. This has occurred only in the 20th century since there are no weight divisions in professional sumo, every wrestler wants to be as big as they can be to use their weight in the ring.

These tournaments really do sell out quickly so please ensure you buy your tickets before you leave home unless you are on a Cruise Express escorted tour as this will be managed for you.

Cherry Blossom Time

Every spring in Japan the country comes alive in clouds of delicate pink and white as cherry trees blossom with new life – The Sakura Season – a truly symbolic image of this island nation.

The cherry blossom season is undoubtedly the highlight of the Japanese calendar and has been celebrated for hundreds of years. In addition to innovation, neon lights and sushi, the Japanese have long been known as leaders of cherry blossom appreciation.

It is really hard to predict when they will open and be at full bloom as it really is weather dependent – that week fluctuation of earlier or later is impossible to guess. Fortunately, geographical location is a reliable factor in determining blossom-time. The south always begins a lot earlier, often in January, while in the very north, it can be as late as May!

At the end of the day, picking the exact time to see cherry blossoms is not easy or guaranteed, particularly on a short trip. To avoid disappointment, we recommend you plan your holiday around so many other fabulous things Japan has to offer, and if you happen to time the blossoms right then consider it a wonderful bonus!

Shinkansen Bullet Trains

Shinkansen, translated to “New Trunkline” and quickly dubbed globally as the “Bullet Train” for obvious reasons, was originally built and operated by government-owned Japanese National Railways in 1964 and has been part of the Japan Railways Group since 1987.

The first 515km section of the original line between Tokyo and Osaka was opened in 1964, just before the start of the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games. The many innovations including kilometre long welded sections of track and prestressed concrete ties were internationally acclaimed.

Although very expensive, one incredible invention has been ‘Maglev’, a railway based on magnetic levitation. Electromagnets levitate the train slightly above the tracks and without the friction of typical rail, it’s these magnets that create the thrust that moves the train.

Interestingly, the initial concept pre-WWII was to run lines to Beijing, a tunnel to Korea and Singapore, and build connections to the Trans-Siberian Railway and other lines throughout Asia. Due to the worsening of Japan’s position in 1943, these plans were abandoned.

What did continue to develop was 2,765km of railway throughout Japan connecting distant towns, islands and cities to the capital to promote growth and development. Since inception, and now with speeds up to 320km per hour, the Shinkansen has carried over 10 billion passengers and there has never been a fatality due to a train accident such as a collision or derailment, despite all the typhoons and earthquakes Japan endures.

Sushi Making

Last but not least, what’s a visit to Japan without a class in how to make sushi. This is always a hit with Cruise Express clients, even those that don’t eat sushi have a great time, learn new skills to take home to impress family and friends, but most importantly have a lot of laughs. Ask about gold leaf painting classes too!

Click here to find out more about our 2020 escorted holiday to Japan that is selling fast!

Japan in Full Bloom

Lasting for only a week or two, every spring with clear blue skies, Japan comes alive in clouds of delicate pink and white as cherry trees blossom with new life – Sakura – a truly symbolic image of this island nation and a dream destination for any photographer. We love the cherry blossoms of Japan!

The cherry blossom season is undoubtedly the highlight of the Japanese calendar and has been celebrated for hundreds of years. In addition to innovation, neon lights and sushi, the Japanese have long been known as leaders of cherry blossom appreciation.

Japan Cherry Blossoms

Increasingly, the people of Japan celebrate this beautiful change of seasons with cherry blossom (and also pretty but to a lesser extent, plum blossoms) appreciation parties, picnics and even street festivals called ‘Hanami’ (flower viewing). Families and friends get together in these blossoming gardens to stop and reflect on the beauty of life and its changing nature. This is not a new tradition, there are records dating back to the eighth century of imperial courtiers celebrating with picnics and poetry.

Japan Cherry Blossoms

So, when is the best time to see Sakura in full-bloom? While the temperatures coming out of winter is a factor, the geographical location is key to determining blossom-time.  In the north, this can be as late as May while in the south of Okinawa, it can open as early as January! Typically for the rest of the country including Osaka, Hiroshima and Kyoto, very late March to early April is a safe bet to see mother nature at her utmost prettiest!

We love ‘Hanami’ (flower viewing) in so many areas of Japan including Tokyo and Osaka, as well as Mt Fuji and her Five Lakes, yet one of the most outstanding has to be Hiroshima, a city that quietly demands reflection and appreciation. With hundreds of shrines and temples, Kyoto is home to 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites and is also a truly magical destination during the cherry blossom season.

Japan Cherry Blossoms

Truly steeped in culture and tradition, Japan is increasingly a popular tourist destination. If you are planning on visiting this stunning nation, there is of course much more to see and do other than the cherry blossoms, depending on what time of the year you plan to visit. We love the ski fields of Hokkaido or Honshu, Onsens, snow monkeys in Nagano, sumo wrestlers, sushi making classes, tea ceremonies, Shinkansen bullet trains and of course the countless shrines and palaces.

To join one of our fully escorted tours to Japan please call 1300 766 537 or click here.

To see more photos of one of our recent 2019 tours, please click here.

Japan Cherry Blossoms

The Kimberley – Your Guide on What to Expect, When and Why

With its grand yet unforgiving landscape, The Kimberley is often referred to as Australia’s last great wilderness frontier, boasting some of the largest intact natural areas left on the planet and certainly one of the most unspoiled destinations in the world.  

Formed billions of years ago, the 2,000km Kimberley coastline is famous for its awe-inspiring rugged beauty and stunning diversity. The abundance of wildlife and waterfalls, indigenous rock art, gorges, volcanic remnants, mangroves, rainforests and islands, and can often only be accessed by smaller ships and zodiacs.

The region’s remoteness and tropical climate can make exploring this part of the world difficult. Cruising, especially small expedition ships, will allow you to discover this vast and expansive coastline with ease, taking you to destinations that aren’t accessible by land.

With so much diversity we often get asked when is the best time to cruise The Kimberley and what will you see during the different seasons?  Generally, the optimal time is from April through to September. Although you can travel from October through to March, it is extremely hot and humid with substantial rainfall and thunderstorms, often flooding and closing main roads – so perhaps not such an appealing time for most!

Remember, that Mother Nature still determines everything, so please take this as a guide not as gospel!

Waterfalls – April to May

This coast is known for its iconic waterfalls,  including Mitchell, King George and Horizontal Falls and early in the dry season these falls are at full force. The falls are fed by the regions wet season so the earlier in the season you go the more vibrant and spectacular the falls are going to be. The region will also be very green during this time due to the rain. The weather during this period can still be a little grey with quite high humidity and there can be the occasional rainy day, so it is still a little bit of a gamble, particularly in April. However, seeing the falls at their fullest will surely make up for the changing weather.    

Peak Season – June to July

This is definitely the most popular time of year to visit The Kimberley. Primarily because it is cooler, the weather is dry, the skies are blue and generally speaking the temperatures are comfortable. The falls will still be flowing although they will most likely not be at their fullest.

The roads are pretty much in good condition by now and the waterfall swimming pools are full and clean. Remember that the nights in certain areas like the Bungle Bungles can be cool.

Whales – August to September

By August most waterfalls have dried up to a trickle, and most rockpools, although starting to get low, are still clear and great for swimming. This late in the season it is unlikely that Mitchell Falls and King George Falls will still be flowing.  

However, this is the season for wildlife encounters. Being a world-class whale watching region, The Kimberley is home to the world’s largest population of Humpback whales. Up to 30,000 Humpback whales swim from the Antarctic feeding grounds to the warm waters of The Kimberley to breed and give birth.

In addition to Humpback, Southern Right and Blue whales make their way along the coast, sometimes coming close to shore with their calves. The best time to observe these gentle giants tail-slapping and breaching is around noon, when the sun is directly overhead, although it can happen at any time!

An expedition cruise during these months brings you up close a personal with these majestic mammals, watch on as they often put on playful displays around the ship.

But wait – there’s more…

This spectacularly vast region is also one of the last remaining healthy refuges for many threatened and endangered marine species, including six of the seven species of marine turtles, dugong, and countless varieties of sharks, dolphins and fish.

The coastal areas of The Kimberley also offer sanctuary for many species of native mammals and marsupials, reptiles, amphibians, insects and other invertebrates, some that no longer exist in other parts of Australia. It is also home to many species of birds, rare plants, freshwater crocodiles and fish, including catfish and barramundi.

Cruise Express offers luxury expedition cruises to this region with Ponant. These do sell out quickly so enquire today to secure the sailing date and cabin you want. For details on our 2020 options see here.

 

 

 

Hook up with Moira!

Are you a ‘happy hooker’?

Below is a blog written by Moira, our crochet cruise host, for those who are lovers of cruising and crochet (French for ‘hook’). You may not realise what a sensational combo these activities make! We have now made it a reality – all aboard the Cruise Express Crochet Cruise!

Cruising

I believe everyone deserves to cruise at least once in their life and when they do, they are bound to get ‘hooked’, resulting in a lifelong love affair of the cruise experience. So this is how it was for me! I can’t tell you which cruise line or ship I love the most as all cruise lines have something unique to offer, though I am quite partial to a wrap-around, teak promenade deck.

With more than 35 cruises under my belt, I once took some cross-stitch with me and it was then that I realised this was my favourite kind of holiday – guilt-free craft time as I was sailing to sunny destinations – bliss!

Crochet

Crochet is a wonderfully fulfilling and forgiving craft and, with its global resurgence in the last couple of years, has certainly evolved from the daggy granny squares associated with crochet to what is now known as ‘the yoga of craft’, with practical artworks created.

Youtube was my reintroduction to crochet, with many wonderful tutorials there to help guide me. I go into my own little world of mindfulness the moment I have a crochet hook in my hands. Even so, as my WIPs (“work in progress”) became beautiful creations and I enjoyed the zen of something growing in my hands, I craved community, a ‘hook and natter’ so to speak. And that’s where crochet cruising comes into its element.  

Reflecting on our first two  Cruise Express crochet cruises last year,  I am left smiling. To craft solo is lovely, to be in a room with a sea view and brimming with fellow crafters is just splendid.

Crochet Cruising with Cruise Express in October 2019

The cruise package is unique with ALL workshops available to ALL crocheters. Everything is supplied and some coveted hooker tools are included as part of the package.

All our crocheters (hookers) have to do is pack a bag, bring a friend or hubby and come aboard – EVERYTHING plus more is supplied.

Hookers are a hoot of course! Always generous with their time and knowledge, kind and with a delicious, self-deprecating sense of humour.

 A Day at Sea

On our recent crochet cruises, the daily rhythm was quickly established with a morning welcome from with myself, morning workshops and afternoon workshops run by our crochet teachers (including Emily Littlefair of The Loopy Stitch) and lots of social, hooking time.

Our room was set up for both workshops, retail therapy and social hooking and was utilised for about 14 hours a day – stormy day shawls, crossover vests and broom stitch bags were created as new friendships were forged.

It was not all hooking though. We enjoyed spa centre massages, hairdressing appointments, shopping, dining, hot tubbing, swimming, strolling, world-class shows, cocktail hour and shore tours, to name a few activities.

Crochet Cruise

A Day in Port

Shore tours were quickly followed by social hookups as, like homing pigeons, our hookers found their way back to our workshop room at the top of the ship. Much laughter, conversation and show and tell was then followed by a good time before pre-dinner cocktails, dinner and of course a show.

Ahhhhh the life of a cruiser!! Cruising and crochet are a match made in heaven!

I look forward to hookin’ the high seas with you soon – click here to enquire about securing your cabin today on our October 2019 cruise or call a cruise crocheting specialist on 1300 766 537.

Moira Mevissen

Cruise Express Crochet Cruise Host

How would you like to travel to Antarctica?

This ultimate bucket list destination has never been more accessible…

It wasn’t that long ago Antarctica was only accessible to explorers, researchers and scientists – fortunately, this mostly untouched southernmost frozen continent with its spectacular rich wildlife, can now be reached by almost everyone.

An exhilarating trip of a lifetime to one of the world’s most inhospitable and remotest of destinations can be achieved in several ways dependent on budget, tastes and other requirements. The options now available vary to suit intrepid explorers, to luxury cruisers with more time, or those who have limited time and prefer to fly directly. Alternatively you can just fly over the continent for several hours!

With so many options to choose from, there’s almost nothing stopping you… Outlined below are a few of our favourites:

EXPEDITION CRUISING

Imagine immersing yourself in the pristine beauty of Antarctica on a smaller, more intimate expedition ship. One of the beauties of this style of cruising is that it allows you to get up close and personal when seeing the icebergs, glaciers, seals, penguins and whales.

Carrying between 50 and 200 passengers, expedition vessels are able to travel through smaller waterways, and their zodiacs are take passengers right onto the shore. As they have less passengers (and tourist guidelines limit landings to 100 people at a time) everyone will ultimately have more visits to ashore.

If you love cruising with all the bells and whistles of parties, shows, discos dancing, gambling and shopping, then expedition cruising may not be for you.

  

Expedition holidays are more about immersion and education, suiting travellers who are there to really get into the destination and prefer a challenge. It’s important to keep in mind that expedition ships vary from ex-Russian research vessels with shared accommodation and facilities. Current expedition ships are much more modern and luxurious!

The luxurious Ponant line ships, including Le Lyrial and L’Austral, have onboard experts who know about the destination. These experts are available to you throughout your journey and they include naturalists, botanists, marine biologists, historians and geologists.

Super-fit and ultra-adventurous? We suggest you look into the cruises offering kayaking, scuba diving, cross-country skiing, hiking, helicopter rides and camping!

CRUISE SHIP VOYAGES

Large cruise ships are generally more comfortable in rough seas (particularly the Drake Passage) and offer more facilities and activities onboard. Approximately ninety percent of cruise ships depart from the very southern ports of Ushuaia in Argentina or Punta Arenas in Chile.

One of the downsides of the larger ships (those with less than 500), is that because there are very strict guidelines limiting the number of people that are permitted to embark onshore at one time, the opportunities for you to land are ultimately limited.

The ‘over 500-passenger’ cruise ships are not permitted to land passengers at all, so the views can be appreciated from the ship decks only. This may suit some (probably not most), particularly those with mobility issues.

Although the length of cruise holidays can vary, they are usually between 10 days and three weeks, with longer voyages incorporating South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.

FLY & SAIL

If you are time poor or suffer seasickness, the best way to see Antarctica would be to fly directly to the Antarctic Peninsula. By doing this you can save on the ‘lost’ days at sea and avoid notoriously arduous waterways. The best part is that you then get to enjoy sailing in the regions calmer waters.

Fly and sail is almost always a more expensive option, but it does cut out a lot of time and enables you to tick one off the bucket list in merely a week or so while still experiencing so much of the majestic landscape and wildlife.

The most popular departure option is from Punta Arenas in Chile, one of the southernmost cities in South America. From there it’s a mere three-hour flight to King George Island on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Although this is a highly appealing way to visit Antarctica, we do suggest you keep in mind that flights to Antarctica are less frequent and less predictable than regular flights.

FLY OVER

Chartered Qantas 747’s have been flying over Antarctica on day trips for over 20 years. The approximately 12-hour trip only operates in summer from either Sydney, Hobart and Melbourne. As the warmer weather brings temperatures that start to break up the ice, it’s a great way to put the grand scale of Antarctica into perspective.

It’s an easy way to enjoy the scenery as the planes can descend to around 11,000ft and slow to 240 knots. With a glass of bubbles in hand, you also have the opportunity immerse yourself with onboard Antarctica education, documentaries, as well onboard environment and history experts.

From Australia, it’s a mere three and a half hours until you’ll see the first glimpses of ice sheets and icebergs. Up for something even more remarkable? Go for a 31 December departure from Melbourne to welcome in the near year!

For more information on booking the trip that bucket list dreams are made of, call the travel experts at Cruise Express on 1300 766 537 or email info@cruiseexpress.com.au.